Coda CEO Shishir Mehrotra on the future of the document

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Image Credits: D3Damon (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Productivity tools have been a white-hot space, with new startups seeming to nab funding on a daily basis.

Coda has been one of the more impactful productivity tools, pitching a richer and deeper collaborative document builder. The startup has picked up $60 million in funding from top investors like NEA, General Catalyst, Greylock Partners and Kleiner Perkins. I recently spoke to CEO Shishir Mehrotra about how his startup has aimed to rethink the document.

Below is a quick chunk of my interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.


TechCrunch: Productivity is a very hot space right now. How has Coda shifted since you started it in 2014?

Shishir Mehrotra: You’ll find companies where what they’re doing today and what they said they were going to do at the beginning is totally different. We’re pretty close and I think you could attribute that to — if I was going to be really generous I’d say we’re prescient, and if I was being not so generous, I’d say we’re super-stubborn.

Our Series A was really interesting because my first company took almost a year to raise a half-million bucks. This one took a weekend to raise 25 million bucks. My Series A deck was 69 slides long, which I would never recommend for anybody. It was basically a series of mocks of what I thought the product was going to become, because that’s all that really mattered and that’s roughly what we’ve ended up building. So with the overall perspective of what the original vision was and what I thought the product would feel like, I think we’re pretty close.

I don’t think I expected the market to be this hot, which is I think interesting. I think when we started the company, most of what we heard was, “what’s wrong with [Microsoft] Office? Why do you want to change it?” And we mentioned it to people at gatherings and they’d give me their lists of stuff that they complain about with Office and it’s all like, “they don’t have the font I like.” Clearly, people’s imagination for what a doc could become was from what we intended to do, but if I look back now, there’s this wave of interesting companies and people doing interesting things in the space using all sorts of labels for the category and it’s just a hot space and I would not have expected that.

There are so many productivity and note-taking tools launching right now, how do you ensure that you hold an advantage?

This is a space where the last set of tools lasted us 40 years. The metaphors we use when we talk about Office or Google Docs — all of those metaphors were framed in the 1970s. There’s a running joke that if Austin Powers popped out of his freezing chamber, he wouldn’t know what music to listen to or what clothes to wear, but he could work a document, spreadsheet or presentation because VisiCalc and WordStar set the metaphors that we use today. And with that period, we basically went from the green screen version to the Windows version to the Mac version to the web version to the mobile version — but all the same metaphors. And so my sense of it is that the next set of metaphors will probably last a long time. And first-to-market, second-to-market, eighth-to-market kind of matters, but I think what matters more is whether it’s the right set of building blocks.

What’s the defensible tech among all of these no-code tools? What are the real differences between Coda and a product like Notion?

Yeah, I personally don’t really love the no-code label, but the —

Why’s that?

I mean, I don’t think that reflective of what people end up doing with a product like ours. You know, we built a new doc and if you go ask our users what they’re using it for, most of them will tell you, “I use it as a big fancy document that occasionally I do something more in.”

We use this term, we enable anyone to make a doc as powerful as an app. But the ordering of those words really matter. I think there are a lot of people out there that will say, I want to allow people to make apps as easily as docs, which sounds similar, but it’s actually quite different. And so when I hear “no-code,” that’s what I hear, I hear like, “I’m interested in making an app, how easy can you make it make it for me?” I don’t think most people think that way, I think most people think from the perspective of “I need to do a thing and if it gradually becomes complicated I’m happy to be in an environment that can adapt to it.”

So I think about the space as a new type of document that happens to encroach on application-building. It sounds similar, but in my head, they’re very different products.

I get that, but back to the differentiation.

Yeah, I think Notion is a great product, I think there’s a set of these products that mostly shipped right about when we started the company so we’ve been kind of watching them grow up and and it’s fun and inspiring to see them find fit. We’re three years younger than most of them and so we get the pleasure of learning.

I’d say there are probably a couple ways that our users would compare us with Notion. I think that the first thing people would say is the focus on the metaphor of a doc versus a wiki. It’s a very different metaphor and the patterns we picked tend to do better with teams as they scale. So taking one of our larger customers like the team at Square, they use us for lots of different things. One of the main things they use us for is one-on-ones and it’s a very natural, well-structured document, but the fact that it’s a document means it scales better into an environment like that. I think other metaphors scale to different patterns and I think wikis tend to do better with smaller teams and individuals. We have teams of thousands using Coda because it just fits better with a mental model, your wiki kind of falls apart when you get to that size.

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